Day 1 – Sunday 28 Aug 2011

The airport, Beja

I was warned before we set off that everything in Alentejo is slow. ‘Don’t expect anything to happen in a hurry.’ Not true.
The little Beja airport, plonked in the middle of nowhere, is square, awkwardly shiny new, and disconcertingly empty; peopled in the main by lounging bored guarda. It has, and I say this with confidence, the fastest luggage carousel in the world. To wrest your suitcase off this high-speed device requires concentration, spatial awareness, daring, and a lightning hand-eye coordination that would not be out of place in a fencing competition.
But it is true to say that apart from the luggage carousel, the only speedy thing that happened in Alentejo while we were there was the time it took to fall in love with this wide-flung rugged place.
It’s ironic that the country to which we owe so much for the discovery of the world has so much of its own still undiscovered. For two centuries, Portuguese explorers headed out into the vast unknown, and with mind-blowing courage and resilience found, explored and mapped Africa, Asia and South America, reaching as far as Japan and the Cape of Good Hope. It’s even more ironic that the most famous of these, Vasco da Gama, was born in a small town in Alentejo. Because visiting Alentejo is like stepping into a place that time forgot; an oasis of ancient rhythms and beauty hemmed in by the tourist-saturated coastline of Algarve and the sophisticated modernity of Lisboa. It’s easy, at first, to see why people don’t venture too far beyond the boundaries of these regions which are just foreign and sunny enough to feel like a holiday, but come complete with the comfortingly familiar: the golden arches of McDonalds, smart modern holiday apartments, nightclubs and long sandy beaches.
Alentejo is different. The landscape is monochrome and wide, broken only by the flat sage-and-charcoal umbrellas of Holm oaks and gnarled cork trees – the occasional violent slash of red where the cork has recently been stripped. The roads are lonely and long. It’s dusty and sleepy-afternoon still. It’s unperturbed and undisturbed by the lure of desperate neon lights and the modern gashes of plastic entertainment. It doesn’t, Algarve-like, splash its beaches and red bikinis across the pages of travel magazines and siren-call you to a week of sun-kissed skin and cocktails. It’s been this way since forever, and I could sense no obligation to change. It is perhaps for the traveller who wants a little less.
We unfolded the pages of Alentejo with as much surprise as children on a treasure trail. Each day brought unexpected morsels of delight, as succulent as the figs that dripped off the trees on the roadsides. We were to find that things were not always what they seemed.
The first was that Alentejo is far from monochrome. Step closer. That tawny colour is from the petals of a million flowers, little golden-stemmed thistles with bright yellow papery petals. That field over there is deep red, and the soil just behind it pale as clotted cream; the rocks jutting up in the hill are black as slate. The sky is so very blue it seems to dazzle itself. Drive into the village and slow down. The oleanders are bowed with wedding bouquets of flouncing white and pink blossoms, the tiny lantana flowers are glowing with red and yellow and pink, the rock roses are Catherine wheels of colour, the bougainvilleas are exploding into showers of fuchsia, purple, scarlet and orange. Walk into a garden. The figs are purple-black, pomegranates a blushing pink, lemons just turning from green. Orange trees, vibrant green, line the cobbled streets, oranges hanging like lanterns. Lavender grows out of the wall in a cloud of violet. And the houses. The houses are dazzling white except for one amazing thing. The border of window and door has been painted in a loud brazen glorious shade of blue or yellow. From cool pale azure blue to deep burnt ochre, the tones vary, but the colours still echo the sky and fields and sun. We were told by one person that the colours were to keep the bad spirits out, by another that the colours kept the insects out (they’re attracted to white and therefore not to the ring-fenced windows and doors). Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing. It’s a beautiful sight.

It’s not as hot as you think. OK, we went in September and talk of the town was how mild the weather was. But the evenings were cool, even chilly, and on one day we were brought to an absolute halt for most of the day by unseasonal, but nevertheless torrential, rain. The insider information tells us that: April is breathtakingly beautiful – the wild flowers come out and the whole of Alentejo is practically pulsating with colour and scent; May and June are fresh and still green and the tourists haven’t arrived yet; July is hot, it’s the time for swimming pools and siestas and the season for acres upon acres of sunflowers; August is hotter and the Lisbonites arrive in their droves from the city; September is harvest, busy, hot and maybe wet, but the grapes and ripe and the fruit everywhere is juicy and sweet and falling off the trees; October is cool and quiet but the days are still sunny; November to March is cold (by Alentejo standards – I saw photos of the Soares kids swimming in the river in January, wearing nothing but costumes!) but the tourists have gone, the guest houses all have roaring log fires, the days are bright and beautiful for long walks across the estates, the wines are rich and throat-warming, the food is generous and hearty. You could read that book you’ve been meaning to read for years…

That Lisbon joke about Alentejana backwardness? I think they’re scared of competition. When we saw the extent of the visionary thinking in Alentejo, we were astounded. The incredible engineering feat of the Alqueva dam and the revolutionary changes it has brought to the area, the strict but incredibly wise rules about building and development and preserving the environment, the canny and thrifty yet glorious cuisine, a good yet simple roadwork system, the huge untouched tracts of cork forests and wilderness, the introduction of vineyards , the preservation of the marble heritage, the beauty of the architecture that stands from Roman to very modern, the restoration and recycling of abandoned buildings, and the fierce independence of the people: these are not the signs of a dull and slothful place. Alentejo was so full of life it thrilled to the touch. But you’ve got to travel to find it out. Perhaps the only time I felt exasperated was when it came to connecting with the outside world. Wireless, nearly everywhere, was appalling: slow, intermittent and/or hideously expensive. The only place I could finally, with a sigh of relief, send and receive data was at the Convento do Espinheiro in Évora.

Finally, poejo. Pennyroyal. An odd-tasting mint that goes into lots of dishes and gets made into a strangely medicinal digestif liqueur. My husband will tell you that it’s as bad as everyone says it is. I say, going native, it’s fantastic.

Tamlyn Currin